KTUU (NBC): Senate Energy Committee meets on BP spill

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Each day that oil pours in the Gulf of Mexico, Congress gets more anxious about the costs not only for the cleanup, but also for the future.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, debated legislation that would raise the liability limit for oil spills Tuesday, and there is considerable debate about how best to proceed.

"Today is Day 36. Oil continues gushing into the Gulf. No one is really sure how much oil is leaking," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.

No one at the hearing is sure how much it will cost.

"One thing I am certain of is that the current penalty and liability system is inadequate," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

The current cap for economic damages is $75 million. The limit was set by the Oil Pollution Act, passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill.

But damage from the Gulf of Mexico spill is expected to gush into the billions.

"BP has stated that it will pay all legitimate claims and that it will not insist on the $75 million dollar cap currently in the law," Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said.

"What BP has said doesn't mean much. You may be the last person in America who trusts or believes what BP says. It doesn't matter," countered Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

"In the middle of this crisis while the gusher is still flowing from under the ocean floor, the representation today might be very different than the actions six months or a year from now," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Some senate Democrats want the cap for economic damages raised to $10 billion.

Murkowski and Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter have proposed compromise legislation that would write BP's promises to pay for the spill into law, and for now, put the cap on hold.

"We need to listen carefully and constructively on how we hold companies liable, how e incentivize stronger safety and environmental safeguards as it pertains to the $75 million liability cap," Murkowski said.

Murkowski agrees that the liability cap should be increased, but says the amount needs more careful consideration so that it won't compound the economic damage -- or harm the nation's energy security.

She says the priority now should be processing damage claims as quickly as possible and that the liability cap can wait. Other senators were not so sure.

"A year from now, the TV cameras will not be there. And some fisherman is going to have to go to court to try to get damages from BP, a multi-billion dollar corporation. This guy doesn't stand a chance. Now is the moment," said Sanders.

BP is under the microscope with senators calling for an FBI investigation and questioning the company's $5 billion dollars in first quarter profits and the future of the industry.

"We may want to consider banning drilling at certain depths until it's clear we can engage in repair and recovery," Whitehouse said.

Murkowski's bill would create a centralized claims office to provide fair compensation on a no-fault basis, but she says her bill has been blocked from the Senate floor.

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Source: By Rhonda McBride. Originally published May 25, 2010